Terrorism and the Media

This two-phase project analysed the dynamics and factors involved in the potentially negative role of media reporting on terrorism.

Richard Levine / Alamy Stock Photo

RUSI’s year-long, two-phase ‘Terrorism and the Media’ project was an independent research effort funded by the office of Assistant Commissioner of Specialist Operations Neil Basu, the UK’s Head of Counterterrorism (CT) Policing.

The UK continues to confront the ever-changing threat of terrorism, making it essential to understand the relationship between terrorism and the media. As a form of communicative political violence which attempts to influence an audience, terrorists may seek to use mass media infrastructure to further their objectives.

To better understand these dynamics, the first phase of the project focused on compiling the theoretical evidence base around the role of the media, while the second phase focused on testing the assumption that media can contribute to impact, by concentrating on the specific context of the UK’s national-level print media.

The project was led by Dr Jessica White and supported by a University College London research team.

Richard Levine / Alamy Stock Photo

Aims and objectives

We investigated the role that traditional mainstream media plays in the impact of terrorism, such as amplifying levels of public fear or reproducing propaganda.

The role of the mass media in the advancement of terrorism’s objectives is controversial, even within academic literature, as it is difficult to draw direct lines of causation due to the diversity of factors contributing to terrorism and the process of radicalisation. Therefore, the first phase of this project synthesised the existing literature to explore the theoretical evidence base on the role of the media. In the second phase, the project team examined the potential impacts of reporting in UK newspapers on terrorism. Through interviews with stakeholders in the media and the police, it also explored the practical challenges and fluid dynamics of the modern media environment and how these may affect reporting on terrorism. Building on this, the project explored the value of further guidance specific to reporting on terrorism, as well as the importance of a positive information relationship between the police and the media.

Project outputs

Access links to the launch event and key publications produced as outputs for this project.

A Complex Matter: Examining Reporting on Terrorism in the UK
Recording: Terrorism and the Media: Reporting in the UK: Paper Launch
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Terrorism and the Mass Media
Recording: Terrorism and the Mass Media Launch Event
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Project impact

This two-phase project culminated in recommendations for the mainstream media and CT Policing in the UK. The findings and recommendations for the media related to training and the establishment of a non-prescriptive guidance page offering reference points on volume, content, sensitivity and impact of media reporting on terrorism. These recommendations were received positively by the Society of Editors and the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

The findings and recommendations for the police focus on the provision of evidence for media impact and training around police concerns and constraints. Recommendations for the police to engage in training sessions and with an educational campaign have already been taken up by CT Policing. Additionally, on the advice of this project, the police have applied to join the Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee.

Overall, the report was welcomed and included forewords from both the Head of CT Policing and the Executive Director of the Society of Editors.

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